Football: A day to crown all at Palace of panic; While Attilio Lombardo takes a crash course in survival in south London, an old campaigner gets another chance in Sheffield

Nick Callow charts another crazy chapter at a club where nothing is Crystal clear
Click to follow
The Independent Online
DIGNITY is a key word for Crystal Palace's new manager Attilio Lombardo. The Premiership's latest Italian Godfather feels the Palace players have been lacking that quality in their descent to the bottom of the Premiership table. He need look no further than his predecessor Steve Coppell to find out how to attain it.

Lombardo also feels the players have shown a lack of respect, a bad move in Italian circles, towards Coppell, whose integrity cannot be questioned amid this joke soap at Selhurst Park, even though the latest episode, on Friday the 13th with a full moon looming, was a cracker.

Coppell shoulders all the blame for the club's position and, having been told by the owner elect, Mark Goldberg, he will no longer be in charge of the team next season, decided to make drastic changes.

So a media circus spontaneously assembled at one of Palace's "four shacks" of a training ground - Lombardo's recent description not mine - to hear all about it. And we heard a lot, as we discovered that Tottenham's Christian Gross is no longer the least intelligible of the foreign Premiership bosses (excluding Kenny Dalglish), via Lombardo's affable translator, Dario.

"Did Attilio say he felt as if he had been run over by a truck, or a lorry when he heard the news?" one anxious reporter asked an Italian colleague. "No, he said he felt like he had been crushed by a hotel," came the helpful reply.

The hotel Lombardo referred to was the one where he had met Goldberg, Coppell and his new assistant, Tomas Brolin, the previous night, at 9.30. He was given half an hour to accept the offer, but he clearly had not been expecting a new job.

His English is apparently not that bad, according to Coppell who said that Lombardo was simply nervous of speaking in front of so many people - presumably 11 players is not beyond him - and that he has the fluent Brolin to back him. Your view, Tomas? "Our job is to try and do our best for Crystal Malice, I mean Palace." Yesterday, Goldberg complicated matters further by saying Brolin was not assistant but Lombardo's interpreter.

So Lombardo and Brolin must now translate Palace's season into something more promising. Even Coppell realises it sounds crazy to the football world but believes he has made the best move for a club he holds dear. It is also clear that he has been all but forced into this position by Goldberg's decision to go public with his long-term plan to replace him with Terry Venables.

Coppell explained: "The decision was made between myself, Ron Noades and Mark Goldberg. It is a situation that I am comfortable with, given our present predicament in the league. My role as director of football begins as of now and the first decision I have made is to ask Attilio to take over team affairs.

"In an ideal world I'd be speaking to you - well I wouldn't be speaking to you - with Crystal Palace in mid-table and I would be manager. That is not the situation and there had to be a change. It's been like slow strangulation, drifting down the league, and I felt, very strongly, something had to be done.

"I realise a lot of people will look at us as being foolish, but, rather than slow strangulation, we've done something. Only the people within the walls here think we've got a fighting chance of staying up. Almost to a man, the rest of the country think Palace are done. So, if we fail, we've lost nothing.

"The players realised I wasn't going to be in charge long-term so it needed someone, at least for the short term, directly in charge. Ron [the outgoing chairman/ owner] is comfortable with this."

At least everybody is comfortable and that especially applies to Noades, who is away on holiday, and Goldberg, who made an early training ground swoop to announce the news to the staff and players and left in a stretch limousine.

Lombardo is not sure, for example, who will make decisions when he and Brolin are both on the pitch so named himself as a substitute at Aston Villa yesterday. He indicated he would do little different to Coppell, but displayed his steely side with a warning to the players he still wanted to refer to as his team-mates. That was followed by his hope that he will not be manager next season, pledging to remain as a player whether Palace stay up or not. "I will work on the players' mentality because our attitude has been lacking recently," Lombardo said. "Not all the players have been following what Steve has been saying, when they should have done."

Coppell hopes the respect Lombardo commands as a player will compensate for his lack of experience as a manager. And Lombardo has a ready-made guru to turn to for help - enter Chelsea's Gianluca Vialli.

"Luca phoned everybody when he got the Chelsea job last month, but I will only be phoning him for advice," Lombardo added. "Who better knows my situation? It's funny really. Luca and I started out at Cremonese together, I followed him to Sampdoria, then to Juve and on to London. Now we are both player-managers. I wonder what he is going to do next?"

Finally, a local correspondent looked to Coppell and asked for any injury news. Coppell smiled and pointed to the new manager, who turned to his translator and whispered: "Her, Herman, er, Herman [Hreidarsson, prompted Dario], yes, Hreidarsson is suspended," and on it went. Crystal clear as mud.

Next week that other managerial master of the English language, El Tel, could well be making a substantial guest appearance alongside a bald eagle formerly known as Attilio Lombardo. Coppell is well out of it, but what a shame the Gazza deal seems to be off the agenda.